HomeInfrastructureSt Pancras - Sheffield Line Speed Improvement Project

St Pancras – Sheffield Line Speed Improvement Project

Many people, including the author, have long argued that the East Midlands has suffered for too long with a second rate main rail line. In fact, that has been the case ever since the demise of the majority of the Great Central line at the time of Dr Beeching. Writes Chris Parker

The Great Central was the only British main line built to continental gauge, and was constructed from the outset as a main line railway. Its alignment was designed for what were, for the time, high speeds. There were separate tracks on much of the route to keep freight and stopping traffic out of the way of express trains.

Making the best of it

For whatever reason, Beeching decided to destroy most of this route, retaining instead the twisty, tight Midland Railway main line (MML). Why was this the chosen option? It can’t have been about making the railways more efficient and effective.

Whatever the reasons, the option to reinstate the Great Central line is now confined to the ‘too difficult’ category. Too much of the alignment has been sold and built upon or ploughed up for any realistic chance of a revival. The East Midlands therefore has to make the best of what it has, at least until the arrival of HS2.

Track relay 2 [online]

That means making the best of the MML. Network Rail and the other stakeholders in the line, particularly East Midlands Trains, have been collaborating to try to make the line rather more of a silk purse than a sow’s ear. A plan was developed as part of Network Rail’s Control Period 4 (CP4) commitment and The Rail Engineer recently visited the East Midlands Control Centre in Derby to meet scheme sponsor Kevin Newman and look at the achievements and challenges of the project.

The £70 million scheme is intended to cut eight minutes in either direction from the journey time for Class 222 Meridian sets running between Sheffield and London St Pancras. Five minutes of this target is being delivered through infrastructure works along the route. The remaining three are coming from reductions in the timetabled engineering allowances on the route, which are being made available by other transformational programmes on the part of Network Rail.

Planning and collaboration

The project has used the so called ‘third way’ approach to line speed improvement that was the basis of much of the similar work done on the West Coast main line. This involves detailed examination of the theoretical and actual track geometry on each line to determine the most cost effective practicable increase in speed attainable on each section of line (if any). The ruling speed of the line was already 125 mph, but relatively little track was actually running at this speed before the project commenced.

Planning and execution of the works depended heavily upon collaborative efforts between Network Rail, East Midlands Trains and other stakeholders.

For example, there would be no point in increasing the permissible speed at any given place to a speed higher than that practically achievable by the trains. Depending on the circumstances, this might be constrained by the accelerative capabilities of the sets, or by their braking characteristics. There would be no point in a line speed that trainscouldn’t reach by accelerating away from a regular station stop or permanent speed restriction, nor would it be useful to extend a high speed beyond the point at which trains would always need to start braking for a similar stop or restriction.

Implementation has been made easier by collaboration between Network Rail and the train operators. East Midlands Trains, in particular, has been collaborating closely with Network Rail over the various works around Nottingham, and this involvement and assistance has been equally vital in the MML project.

Implementation has been made easier by collaboration between Network Rail and the train operators. East Midlands Trains, in particular, has been collaborating closely with Network Rail over the various works around Nottingham, and this involvement and assistance has been equally vital in the MML project.

Four phase commissioning

The original plan was to substantially complete the whole of the project in time for the last national timetable change on 8 December 2013, commissioning the new works in four phases. The first of these, Derby to Chesterfield, was completed on time on 16 November 2013. Elstree to Sharnbrook was due to complete, and did so a week later, on 23 November. East Midlands Parkway to Derby also finished on time on 30 November 2013.

The missing section was East Midlands Parkway/Sharnbrook, which was originally due to complete on 7 December 2013. However, it was foreseen that there was going to be an issue with track condition between Kettering and Loughborough. Such were the track conditions over this stretch that it was decided that it would be impossible in practice to drive to the increased line speed in between the required condition-of-track speed restrictions.

The decision was therefore made to defer the completion of the affected section until March 2014, to permit the necessary track renewals to be completed. This was a joint decision as Network Rail had flagged up the situation early and discussions with the train operator determined the way forward. Network Rail held a series of roadshows for train drivers and other staff to explain to them why the situation arose, what was being done about it and the timescales involved.

Signalling works 2 [online]Due to this delay to the one section of the project’s works, East Midlands Trains’ performance under the PPI measure suffered some days. With lower speeds than planned on the affected route section, it was difficult to recover from other problems on the route. There was also some impact on the train operator’s ‘right time’ performance measure.

Despite that, East Midlands Trains continued to work co-operatively with Network Rail, for example by assisting in finding the infrastructure operator the necessary access opportunities for the work. Though they would ideally have liked an instant solution to the situation, they understood that this was not practical, and so they helped expedite matters where they could.

Aside from the condition-of-track renewals required between Kettering and Loughborough, there were some S&C renewals (including Flitwick for example) still not complete at the time of the introduction of the new timetable. A number of track realignments could not proceed until completion of planned bridge reconstructions in preparation for the forthcoming electrification of the route.

Whilst there were significant timetable improvements, the full benefits of the project were not input into the December 2013 timetable change, but will enable further enhancements in the future. In the interim, it is heartening to see this further evidence of mature, collaborative working between Network Rail and East Midlands Trains on another major project.

Recognition must also be given to the other players in the project. Carillion, Network Rail’s major framework contractor, undertook signalling and some track works alongside Network Rail Projects. AMCO was the bridgeworks contractor, while Atkins and Babcock were respectively responsible for the signalling and track designs. Signal testing was by TICS.

Chris Parkerhttp://therailengineer.com

Conventional and slab-track, permanent way, earthworks and embankments, road-rail plant

Chris Parker has worked in the rail industry since 1972, beginning with British Rail in the civil engineering department in Birmingham and ending his full-time employment at Network Rail HQ in London in 2004. In between, he worked in various locations including Nottingham, Swindon, Derby and York.

His BR experience covered track and structures, design and maintenance, followed by a move into infrastructure management. During the rail privatisation process he was a project manager setting up the Midlands Zone of Railtrack, becoming Zone Civil Engineer before moving into Railtrack HQ in London.

Under Network Rail, he became Track Maintenance Engineer, representing his company and the UK at the UIC and CEN, dealing with international standards for track and interoperability, making full use of his spoken French skills.

Chris is active in the ICE and PWI. He started writing for Rail Engineer in 2006, and also writes for the PWI Journal and other organisations.


  1. Sorry Chris Parker but the Great Central was NOT built to ‘continental gauge’, it’s an urban myth easily disproved by looking at remaining structures and the fact there was no continental standard at the time

  2. Travel on East Midlands Trains every day, most trains on this route are constantly late by 5-10 minutes, not seen any improvements to be honest, seems to have gotten worse. This company always seems to be preaching about how great their service is, but it is quite sloppy with regards to punctuality

    • Simon, sorry that you have found your recent journeys have been late. Please drop me an email to explain which trains you are travelling on and I will look into it scr.im/27g6. David Horne, Managing Director, EMT.

    • That’s because Network Rail consistently put 100mph Thameslink trains in front of 125mph EMT services from Bedford and at Radlett, Harpenden and St Albans junction crossovers.

      As 9XXX headcoded trains they now receive priority pathway clearance over 1XXX EMT services even if the Thameslink train is running late.


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